Opinion: Are Martial Arts Movies Taken Less Seriously Than Other Film Genres?

Leon Nicholson takes a look at the martial arts genre and the reasons why these movies seem to be much maligned.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of martial arts movie fans out there; people who love and breathe the genre. These are the individuals who, more than likely, were brought up on a staple diet of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jimmy Wang Yu and became lovers of everything Shaw Bros. and Golden Harvest – all this during the ‘Golden Age’ of martial arts movies during the 70s and early 80s.

There are however people who do not view this genre as favourably – finding it difficult to take martial arts films seriously as a movie form. Now, before people start berating me for this statement let me explain, I love film… film is amazing. There are however genres I do not like – in fact – cannot stand!  I’m not a fan of musicals…. watching movies such as Mamma Mia would be up there in my worst nightmare scenario (especially so because I’m not an ABBA fan). I am happy to acknowledge there are a few good musicals such as West Side Story and Mary Poppins but if I can possibly help it I’ll avoid this genre like the plague.

The same goes for those dreadful ‘modern dance’ movies such as Step Up and Honey. I would prefer to watch Strictly Come Dancing as a form of entertainment rather than sit through 90 plus minutes of dross with very little plot using dance to ‘tell what little story there is!’ Granted, these performers are talented and I could only dream of doing some of the things that they do but ultimately, it’s not for me. The point I’m trying to make is even though it is a matter of taste these genres are still legitimate and have every right to be taken seriously as a ‘visual art form.’

Unfortunately people give martial arts movies a lot less respect. Why is this? Let’s have a look.

As mentioned earlier, during the ‘Golden Age’ of the 70s and early 80s, martial arts movies were a worldwide phenomenon. Not only did we have the aforementioned names of Lee, Chan and Wang Yu, there were the likes of Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao and slightly later on Jet Li… all superstars in their own right. This was just the very tip of the iceberg regarding the superstars in the genre.

However, before the ‘Golden Age’, martial arts films were doing the rounds for a very long time. From the late 20s through to the early 30s, a Chinese silent serial movie called The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple was released in 18 feature lengths parts. This is classed as one of the longest films ever produced and the longest major released.

Then there is ‘the man’, considered as a legend in some circles, Wong Fei-hung. Incorrectly thought of by some people as a fictional person, Fei-hung was a physician and martial artist. There have been an abundance of movies made about this man with actors such as Jackie Chan in Drunken Master (frustratingly referred to and dubbed as Freddie Wong), Jet Li and Gordon Lui all portraying him at some stage during their career. Throughout the 40s, 50s and 60s however, over 70 plus films alone were produced about Fei-hung. To date, over 100 movies feature his character in some shape or form.

After the ‘Golden Age’ came the inevitable decline in popularity; the bubble had burst, especially in Hong Kong but this coincided with the ‘heroic bloodshed’ sub-genre famously brought to life by John Woo and Ringo Lam with films such as A Better Tomorrow and City of Fire. No longer were audiences yearning for the lightning fast swordplay or the precise brutal hand to hand combat but instead Mexican stand-offs and balletic gunplay was the order of the day. The decline in popularity was exacerbated by the trashy straight-to-video US movies released during the early 80s and 90s, cashing in on the genre as well as the video boom. Mostly with lower budgets, these tacky films include the likes of The Octagon and Enter the Ninja to name but two. The majority of these movies were, in a word… awful. If bad acting and poor choreography was your cup of tea then look no further than the majority of US martial arts films.

So could the video boom and US filmmakers jumping on the ‘profitable bandwagon’ be responsible for the way this genre is viewed? Partly, but if we look back at some of the origins of these films it may give us a better understanding.

Hong Kong clearly dominated the genre during the ‘Golden Age’ and the most of these movies are based on what is called Wuxia which, in simplistic terms, is comprised of wu meaning martial or military and xia meaning hero or warrior. Traditionally known to be a form of Chinese Literature, Wuxia found itself being transposed into movies about heroes bound by a personal moral code; fighting for the oppressed, pursuing justice and righting wrongs. These movies are akin to period pieces and films such as the Shaw Bros. The Sentimental Swordsman and later with Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Therein lie one of the answers to this question. It seems that most of the Western world do not understand the cultural aspects of these films and that is probably why the majority of people dismiss these movies. I remember one occasion discussing the brilliance of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with a friend and they said how much they were enjoying it until Li Mu Bai (played by Chow Yun-Fat) started ‘flying’ then they could not take the film seriously!

I’m not going to lie here. I would never say I understand everything about Chinese culture; if anything my knowledge is limited but what I am able to do very well is suspend belief when watching most movies. This, as most of us know, is key to enjoying most films. If we are able to accept that a teenager can be bitten by a genetically modified spider which enables him to climb buildings, shoot webs out of his wrists and swing through the streets of New York, why can’t people just accept the fact that in Wuxia movies the characters may be able to defy gravity, or fend off a multitude of arrows with their sword and emerge without a scratch! Are Wuxia scenarios and action pieces any more ridiculous than Neo battering his way through hundreds of Smiths or The Bride slicing and hacking her way through the Crazy 88s?

Martial Arts films, or more specifically Kung Fu movies are a huge part of Chinese Cinema and culture; the equivalent of which is the influence the ‘wild west’  had on American Cinema. In fact both genres are similar and share a lot of the codes as previously mentioned. For example, look at the brilliant western Shane starring Alan Ladd. As a hero, he shares similar codes to the knightly and gallant characters written about in Wuxia – helping the poor, oppressed and defending their rights. When you look at these genres closely there should be no reason to dismiss martial arts movies. Or is there?

Others will claim there is another reason. Again we need to return to the films of the 70s and 80s to look at this. It’s thought that the main appeal of these movies is the fight scenes. This leads to the next point. Justly or unjustly, martial arts films have garnered a reputation for having paper thin and repetitive plots – usually themed on revenge, rival kung fu schools or opposing clans. Known for brilliant action pieces, some would argue that the story is expressed through the choreographed fight scenes. This may be so but it does not hide the fact that these movies are viewed as chop-socky, action fuelled features with very little, or no substance.

Again using Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Zhang Yimou’s Hero as examples, these films seemed to change this negative way of thinking. These were seen as movies with fantastic storylines and brilliant performances demonstrating it was possible to combine theses factors with wonderfully choreographed fights. Crouching Tiger won a multitude of awards but ironically Chinese audiences struggled with the different accents of the main characters and the movie was not quite as well received in the East as it was in the West.

Another factor to consider was the atrocious dubbing of Kung Fu movies during the Golden Age that seemed to feature the same voices in most, if not all of these films. These voice-overs never helped for the genre to be taken seriously and of course were famously lampooned by Michael Winslow during the Police Academy Series.

Some would say that the US film market needs to shoulder some of the blame. As mentioned earlier they tried to cash in on the VHS boom with a whole heap of trashy straight to video movies but credit to them where it’s due because they never gave up. Nor did Jackie Chan. Trying to crack Hollywood with films such as The Big Brawl and later with the damn awful The Protector, these were movies helmed by American directors that ultimately flopped at the US Box Office. It wasn’t until the late 90s that we saw US audiences wowing at Chan’s ability and talent but failing to utilise his skills in a good quality movie. What he can do is fantastic but these US movies were mostly dreadful… again not helping the way these films are viewed. So unfortunately newcomers to Jackie Chan films will more than likely judge him by his US efforts.

So are Martial Arts movies taken less seriously than other genres? Well to the hardcore martial arts fan such as myself… pure and simply the answer is that it is taken less seriously which is a shame. When one of the greatest directors of this generation in the form of Quentin Tarantino respects this misunderstood genre (which heavily influenced the brilliant Kill Bill) there should be no reason why others should dismiss it. It goes deeper than a matter of taste and this can be summed up by what my close friend who is a big film fan (who we’ll call #1 ) said when he found out that our mutual mate (who we’ll call #2) is a huge fan of martial arts movies.

#1 – “So, you like martial arts movies?
#2 – “Yes, I thought you knew that.”
#1 – “No way. That really surprises me. I thought you were more refined than that!”

Says it all really….

2 Responses to “Opinion: Are Martial Arts Movies Taken Less Seriously Than Other Film Genres?”
  1. Seamus says:

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you mentioned the poor dubbing. There’s a lot of sublety (and not to mention meaning) lost with poor translation. Poor dubbing can turn a whole movie into a parody of itself.

    And unfortunately I think it’s just an artform that people don’t fully appreciate what goes into it. The sheer physicality of it, not to mention timing, preperation and the danger it puts performers in all seems to be dismissed so easily as ‘one of those fighting movies’. It’s a shame.

    Anyways, intersting read!

  2. Seamus says:

    *preparation, intersting. I should have really proof read that.

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